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q&a with filmmaker henry chaisson

Most undergrads are still figuring out how to make their mark on the world. Music concentrator and filmmaker Henry Chaisson ’16, on the other hand, is well on his way to real-life success. Post- sat down with Henry to talk about his short film “Theodora,” as well as the craft of filmmaking, career advice, and more!

MF: You had two films featured in this past summer’s Rhode Island International Film Festival; one of them, “Theodora,” has been selected for the Vortex Sci-Fi Festival this October—and you’re still an undergrad! How does it feel to have achieved this level of success so early?

HC: It’s been pretty overwhelming. I went to RIIFF maybe three years ago as a consumer, and I never would have anticipated showing there. Even when we shot the film, which we shot in Long Island with no budget, just kind of scraping everything together at the last minute, shooting it in two days—even then I never would have thought, “Oh, this is something that people will want to see or program in their film festival.” So it’s been unexpected and great, and definitely opened a lot of doors in terms of being able to meet people, collaborators, or mentors whose stuff I respect.

MF: So you’re looking towards a career in film?

HC: I would love to find something to do in film—directing, I love editing, I love scoring stuff. That’s what I love about film, there’s so much to do within that world that’s super fulfilling. I love being a Production Assistant on other people’s films. I’m curious when the films go online, what’ll happen then.

MF: “Theodora” is very visual without much verbal information. Did you have any idea of the backstory for the character?

HC: Yeah, totally. It’s minimal narrative, but part of the fun and the due diligence of preparing for it was coming up with a backstory and fleshing out the character—figure out what her world was, what her universe was. That doesn’t show up in the surface plot of the film, but it definitely seeped into other aspects of production. A lot of [the lead actress’s performance] was informed by her asking us questions about every single thing she was doing and needing us to prove why she should do it. And even down to things like set design—there are a lot of little touches that the production designer did based on that story. Theodora’s an amateur zoologist, so the house is sprinkled with artifacts of that, or Theodora has absentee parents and the only things in their kitchen cupboard are a bottle of half-empty whiskey and a can of sprinkles. There’s definitely a backstory, and it definitely helped fill out other parts of the production.

MF: I know you worked with mostly Brown alumni; what was that like?

HC: It was either Brown alumni or one degree removed; our cinematographer was a RISD alum who worked on a lot of Brown films also. Tess Carroll (who wrote it) went to Brown, Mike [Makowsky] (who produced it) went to Brown, I went to Brown, so there’s an existing network. In my case I did a lot of Brown TV stuff and met people through that. Our sound guy was someone I met through the music department who did WBRU stuff. It’s been great because there are so many people here who do so many different things really excellently.

MF: How do you think the Brown experience in general has shaped you as a filmmaker?

HC: I’m mostly self-taught in terms of filmmaking. I have a love of the craft and read a lot about it and tried to absorb things from movies I liked. But then Brown came along and I feel like it let me contextualize that and get a firmer grasp on the theory behind all of those practical skills. Plus, Brown has such awesome extracurricular groups for pretty much everything. I feel like that definitely fills in the gap in terms of Brown not being a film school. It has a community of people who really like film and are actively interested in making stuff and constantly trying to better their craft.

MF: What advice would you give a college student who wanted to do the same stuff that you’re doing?

HC: A helpful realization was that you can reach out to anybody in the world whose work you respect, and they’ll usually talk to you. I shot a documentary in June in Tennessee about a ghost town that’s currently being demolished, but there’s this phenomenon of synchronous fireflies in the woods around the ghost town that make people want to save the town. Going into that, I just kind of email blasted people whose documentaries I’d seen. There’s this documentary Room 237 about The Shining by a guy named Rodney Ascher, and I dug up his email address somewhere. I think he was really happy to hear from a young person who had seen his niche stuff. I was able to meet with him a few times and get advice on how you get a good interview of a person who’s not used to being in the presence of cameras, and things like that.

There’s a great Ira Glass article on the gap between taste and work. There are the films that you really love and there are the films you want to make, and there’s the stuff you actually do make, and there’s a process of degradation between those. You can have people get into creative fields because they have good taste in that field and they feel like they have something to say, but it’s always a hard process. The first things you make don’t reach that level that you’ve set for yourself. Everything I do, I always feel falls short of what I wanted to do. Just keep making stuff no matter what it is. The more you make, the more that gap will close.

MF: Do you have any idea what you’re working on next?

HC: I’m doing a thesis film in the spring which will be another short film. I’m really interested to now do something within the system. Not necessarily view it through a more academic lens, but consult about it extensively with professors or people at the school whose classes I’ve taken or whose work I like. I want to make it something that’s an example of the kind of thing that I want to make after graduating. I’ve done a few shorts that have been super varied, just as a way to explore what’s out there. It’s daunting because there are so many different filmmakers or artists or things that I love, and it’s hard to know where I step in. There are so many different things you can make within that world. So I’m trying to focus and make something that’s exemplary of right now, what I want to try and do.

“Theodora” will screen for free October 20 at 4:00 p.m. at the Providence Public Library as part of the Vortex Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Festival. Visit vortex2015.sched.org for more information.